President Barack Obama and members of Congress aren’t the only government leaders hitting pause on Washington during the holidays. The Supreme Court takes a break from work, too, for almost a full month until mid-January. But as Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal explains, the justices stay busy preparing for a cluster of marquee cases in early 2014. The PBS NewsHour checked in with Coyle for a midterm Q&A about the court. It’s midterm at the U.S. Supreme Court. How is the term shaping up and what are the justices doing right now?
MARCIA COYLE: The justices have just begun a month-long recess. Arguments in 34 cases, beginning in October, ended on Dec. 11. The justices will hear cases again beginning on Jan. 13. The recess is partly because of the holidays, but it is also a time for catching up on the writing of decisions and the preparations for new cases to be argued in the new year.
Have there been any big decisions issued thus far?
MARCIA COYLE: Not really. Of the 34 argued cases, the justices have ruled in just six with signed decisions and two with what we call “per curiam,” or unsigned, decisions. Seven of the eight decisions have been unanimous.
The justices divided only in one of the per curiam rulings, a closely-watched labor case that asked them whether neutrality agreements between an employer and a labor union seeking to organize employees violated the Labor Management Relations Act. The justices did not answer the question and instead dismissed the case. The court didn’t say why it dismissed the case, but three dissenting justices suggested there were technical problems that — they at least believed — could have been overcome by asking the parties to file new briefs.
Is it surprising to see so much unanimity in those rulings?
MARCIA COYLE: The early decisions traditionally reflect a lot of unanimity because they often raise easier issues to resolve. There are plenty of potentially divisive issues ahead in the term.
Are there any big cases still undecided from the first half of the term?
MARCIA COYLE: Yes, indeed. In the very first month of the term, the justices heard arguments in two cases that could have significant implications for elections and for diversity in universities.
The court will decide whether the First Amendment is violated by federal limits on the total amount of contributions that individuals can make to candidates, parties and political action committees in a two-year election cycle. Historically, the court has approved limits on contributions because they raise a serious risk of quid pro quo corruption.
In the education case, Michigan is defending a voter-approved constitutional amendment that prohibits race and gender preferences in education.
The court also heard arguments in November in a case about whether predominantly Christian prayers at the opening of a local government meeting violate the First Amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion.
What are you watching in the new year at the Court?
MARCIA COYLE: The very first case argued when the justices return from their December break is a major political case involving the Constitution’s separation of powers as well as a very practical case for the operation of our government. The justices will examine the meaning of the recess appointments clause to determine whether President Obama violated the Constitution when he made three recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board.
Republican opposition has often frustrated the president’s efforts to get his nominees confirmed by the Senate. Although a recent rule change about filibusters in the Senate should make it easier, the case in the Supreme Court is a major one. Other rules could change, as could the political party that controls the Senate.
I also am watching the return of the new federal health care law to the Supreme Court. The justices have agreed to decide two cases in which the owners of for-profit businesses say that providing health insurance that includes contraception coverage violates their religious beliefs.
And this is a very important term for our environment. The court is considering challenges to efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to alleviate cross-state air pollution and to regulate greenhouse gas emissions not just from vehicles, but also from stationary sources.
There are other cases that may have large or small effects on our lives, and sometimes even the cases that we in the media designate as the biggest ones are resolved in narrow ways. The impact depends on how the justices write the decision.
Do you anticipate any retirements in 2014?
MARCIA COYLE: No, I do not. There have been suggestions again by some court observers that Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer should retire soon in order to ensure that a Democratic president names their successors. Justice Ginsburg has made it very clear that she wants to continue to work as long as she can do the job, and Justice Breyer has shown no inclination that he is ready to leave the court. All of the justices appear to be physically and mentally healthy.
And speaking of health, I hope 2014 brings good health and happiness to everyone at the NewsHour and to all of our viewers. Hope to see everyone again on Jan. 13.
Have more questions about the court for Marcia Coyle? She explained how America’s highest judicial body works in our Q&A video series: